In Israel the holiday of Hoshana Rabbah and Simchat Torah was one day. When I came to the United States, I was somewhat confused…Outside of the land of Israel these two holidays are separated. These two holidays are commonly thought of as part of Sukkot, but that is technically incorrect; Shemini Atzeret is a holiday in its own right and does not involve some of the special observances of Sukkot, like the shaking of the Lulav for example.
Shemini Atzeret literally means “the assembly of the eighth (day).” Rabbis explain the holiday this way: our Creator is like a host, who invites us as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, He has enjoyed himself so much that He asks us to stay another day. Another related explanation: Sukkot is a holiday intended for all of mankind, but when Sukkot is over, the Creator invites the Jewish people to stay for an extra day, for a more intimate celebration. So Hoshana Rabbh is for us to be God’s special guests! And who would not want that?
Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah” This holiday marks the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle.. On Simchat Torah, we read the last Torah portion, then proceed immediately to the first chapter of Genesis, reminding us that the Torah is a circle, and never ends.
This completion of the readings is a time of great celebration. There are processions around the synagogue carrying Torah scrolls and plenty of high-spirited singing and dancing in the synagogue with the Torahs. Drinking is also common during this time; in fact, a traditional source recommends performing the priestly blessing earlier than usual in the service, to make sure the kohanim are not drunk when the time comes! In the morning services, as many people as possible are given the honor of an Aliyah (reciting a blessing over the Torah reading); in fact, even children are called for an aliyah blessing on Simchat Torah. In addition, as many people as possible are given the honor of carrying a Torah scroll in these processions. Children do not carry the scrolls (they are much to heavy!), but often follow the procession around the synagogue, sometimes carrying small toy Torahs (stuffed plush toys or paper scrolls). So, I hope you will come on these two final days of festivities to close the month of Tishrai in a rejoicing, meaningful and wonderful way!